Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative, information technology, and innovation.

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January 21st, 2010

The Canada Revenue Agency: A Hotbed of Innovation?


For the skeptics who claim that innovation in government is an oxymoron, the notion that a tax collection agency could be innovative seems even more oxymoronic. Yet my intuition tells me that the Canada Revenue Agency indeed has bragging rights to such a claim.

Historically, it has been a rapid adopter of information technology, using it to enhance service by providing for payment online or over the telephone and to enhance compliance through aggressive data mining. Its status as a special operating agency, discussed in David Brown’s article in the most recent issue of Canadian Public Administration, has likely facilitated its innovativeness.

More recently, the Harper Government has likely become a driver of innovation, because of its use of tax credits – rather than spending programs – to implement social and economic policy. This philosophy of government tends to leave the program departments sitting on their hands but puts the onus on CRA. Some recent examples that come to mind are tax credits for child care, child fitness, disabilities, public transit use, and now home renovations.

For each such initiative, CRA has to come up with a precise definition of what is creditable, communicate the ensuing rules to the public, and ensure compliance. The latter would involve requiring taxpayers, or their income tax preparers, to keep receipts and occasionally auditing. The home renovation tax credit will be an interesting case. It has been widely advertised and tremendously popular. As the end of the eligibility period and this year’s tax filing date approach, the question that comes to mind is what sort of auditing CRA will do to ensure that taxpayers have been following the rules. Given the populist nature of this program – with a maximum permissible claim of $ 9000 in expenditures – the standard practice of auditing the few biggest users won’t work. The possibility of the program being extended in the upcoming budget underlines the importance of effective administration.

While the next federal budget is likely to involve expenditure cuts or constraints, I would be very surprised if the Harper Government didn’t extend its philosophy of populist tax credits in some other area, again calling upon CRA for implementation.

As a public management blogger and a taxpayer who has taken advantage of several of these programs (universal child care, child fitness, home renovation), what I see is the tip of the iceberg. Below the waterline is what CRA is doing to implement these initiatives. I think there is an interesting story here of innovative policy implementation for a public management researcher to explore.

January 6th, 2010

A Look Back at the Final Exam in Management and Narrative


I see a final exam as an opportunity to challenge students to demonstrate what they have learned by applying the course material to situations they have not encountered in the course. But because the examinations are never returned, the learning loop is not completed. To rectify this, today’s post will be about the final exam in Management C35 (Narratives on Management and Organization) given last month.

The first question highlighted the work of young adults: learning to perform their chosen trade effectively, finding and learning from a mentor, and defining the boundary between professional obligations and personal life. Students had little difficulty choosing characters in the course (for example, Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers, Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men, and Kevin Calhoun in City Hall) and explaining how each dealt with each of the challenges. The most ambiguous of the challenges is finding a mentor. In some cases, such as City Hall, it turns out that the mentor has values his prot

December 16th, 2009

Digital State 2.5

Living Digitally

A little over a year ago, I wrote a paper entitled Digital State 2.0 reviewing the major developments in the use of IT in Canadian politics and government between 2006 and 2009. It is being published in a festschrift – due for release any day now – in honour of the retirement of the eminent public administration scholar G. Bruce Doern.

I’ve been asked to contribute a paper to another edited book about IT in politics and government, so I will be looking at developments during the last year to update the previous paper under the new rubric of Digital State 2.5. Here is my plan for the new paper.

In the area of IT in politics, the main driver of change is general elections. In Digital State 2.0, I referred to the federal election of 2008, Ontario election of 2007, and – because it represented such a transformative change – the US election of 2008. There haven’t been elections in any of these jurisdictions, so there is little to update. I will, however, have a look at the mid-mandate sniping going on among the major parties in the federal and Ontario governments, in particular online attempts by the Liberals to demonize Stephen Harper and online attempts by the Conservatives to trivialize Michael Ignatieff.

Economic recovery has been a key government priority, which will lead to an examination of the online presence for the federal government’s Economic Action Plan ( Its natural comparator will be the US government’s website for the Economic Recovery Act ( It appears that the US site is both more detailed in the information made available and less partisan in how it presents it.

The management of large IT projects is always a major concern, and in the last year we have had one that has gone seriously off the rails, namely Ontario’s eHealth initiative. Claims of project mismanagement have led to the resignations of the Project Manager, Chairman of eHealth Ontario, Deputy Minister and Minister of Health. Forensic analysis of troubled IT projects is a complicated matter, and it’s not clear to me that the official analysis has been completed, but I’ll try to say something about the causes and state of play.

The many facets of social networking referred to as Web 2.0 continue to be evolving in the public sphere as well. While outside the geographic purview of my article, I couldn’t help but laugh at a recent article in the New York Times by Scott Sayare about how the gaffes of French politicians, including even M. le President, are being caught digitally and circulated on YouTube.

More substantial is the US Government’s initiative to make public sector data widely available to applications developers on The background here is that Washington DC did this and received considerable public recognition, including winning a prestigious Innovations in American Government Award in 2009. Vivek Kundra, Washington, DC’s chief technology officer has jumped up two levels of government by moving around the block to become the US Government’s CIO. Thus the US Government is virtually overnight scaling up a local initiative, and the results will be fascinating to see.

Looking back at what I’ve just written, the title of the book that started this line of research comes to mind: Digital State at the Leading Edge. In the book, we were referring to the Government of Canada. No longer. I think that honour now goes to the US. Stay tuned for more in coming weeks and months.

I’ll be taking the next two weeks off posting, and I’ll be back in early January. Happy holidays and best wishes for the new year to all.

December 10th, 2009

Don Valley Golf Course: A Run Back in Time


Back in high school, I played golf as often as I could. My family didn’t belong to a club, so I played the public courses and the one I liked best was the City’s Don Valley Golf Course. If I recall, the total fee for juniors under 18 starting before 11 am was $.95, of which $.75 was for playing and $.20 for insurance. Adults had to pay all of $2.95. That was quite a while ago. For example, the lowest rate for juniors is now $28.

I stopped playing golf in university; it just took too long and didn’t provide as much cardio as a good run or swim. What led me back to Don Valley was the interest of one of my sons in Toronto’s many ravines. He wanted to see the Hogg’s Hollow ravine, and the Don Valley Course was the best way. We went to have a look as the golf season was coming to an end. And this led me to revisit the course as a runner.

There’s a brief period of less than a month between the end of the golf season and the first snowfall of the year, which happens to be coming down as a write this post. The course is being used by runners and dog-walkers, but when the snow falls, the trails disappear.

I found four ways to access the course: the club house, the service yard on the west side of Yonge just north of York Mills, under the bridge over Wilson just west of Yonge, and through a gate from Earl Bales park on the northwest corner of the course (near the green on the third hole). The most daunting of these is the bridge, because there is a steep slope down from Wilson and because some homeless people have set up underneath it.

Instead of running through the course on the way to somewhere else, I decided to make the course the object of the run and retrace each of the 18 holes in the same order as a golfer would play them.

After the first hole, the course goes under Highway 401. I vividly recall from my earliest days there before the widening of the highway that the second hole was a long par five, with an elevated tee, and a double dogleg. As the highway was expanded and cut more and more of a gash through the course, the second continually diminished, even becoming a short par three. At least it has been restored to something approaching its former glory, and is now a long par four. The front nine is relatively flat, and what surprised me is that so many of the holes – the second, third, sixth, and eighth – are all long par fours or fives.

The back nine is to the south of the 401. The holes are quite a bit shorter – a total of 2700 yards compared to the front nine’s 3400 yards – but from the twelfth on they are much hillier, with elevated greens or tees on the valley wall abutting the 401. These holes run back and forth between the river and the valley wall. So I followed the holes, running up and down between tees and greens. This was a serious workout. My preference was to run the back nine first, get the hard slogging over first, and then coast on the more level ground.

Altogether, it was a great run, combining physical challenge with the mental effort of reconstructing how the course was configured. Thinking back to my acquaintance with Don Valley four decades ago, I was remembering playing rounds after I had completed the school year, with a sense of both achievement and expectation. The sun was so bright then, the sky so blue, and the grass so green. Put together the effort and the recollections, and I had quite a run.

With winter upon us, I’ll leave Don Valley for trails with surer footing, but I look forward to visiting it again in running shoes in the spring, in that brief window between snowmelt and the start of the golf season.

December 3rd, 2009

Highway 407 Revisited


Just as Highway 61 (running from New Orleans to Duluth, Minnesota) kept reappearing in Bob Dylan’s life, Highway 407 ETR keeps reappearing in mine. I co-authored a book about it six years ago (If You Build it … at, and I get asked to comment on its ongoing controversies.

I was just on Goldhawk Live on Rogers television, along with Ontario Transport Minister Jim Bradley, NDP transportation critic Peter Tabuns, Toronto Star reporter Jack Lakey, editor of Road Today magazine Manan Gupta, and a host of irate callers. The callers were incensed about several billing policies, including Ontario vehicle license denial for unpaid bills, attempts to collect unpaid balances going back up to 15 years, and 27 percent annual interest rate charges.

At the outset, it’s important to understand that 407 ETR’s business model is unlike most services in the economy (including old fashioned toll roads with collection booths) in that you can use it before you pay for it. This gives the operator, 407 ETR Concession Company Ltd., an incentive to be aggressive in collecting unpaid bills. What the operator prefers is that users lease transponders and have charges automatically billed to their bank account or credit card. Transponders are accurate virtually all the time. The $3.50 per trip collection fee imposed on video imaging is a strong incentive to lease a transponder, which costs $21 for a yearly lease.

By way of personal disclosure, I should say that I make about 20 trips yearly on 407 ETR and have had a transponder since the highway opened in 1997. I’ve had two small problems, a transponder’s battery wearing out and a transponder not functioning because I had placed it behind a metallic windshield sun shade, and both were handled quickly and videoimaging charges were refunded.

My guess is that somewhere in excess of 80 percent of the operator’s revenue comes from transponder users like me. As Pareto’s Law would predict, the administrative problems come from users who don’t have transponders. In an interview two years ago with co-author Chandran Mylvaganam and me, the operator’s spokesman told us that approximately 4 per cent of 407 ETR’s traffic is not billed, which includes both licenses that are not readable and those that are not billable because they are from jurisdictions that have not agreed to make their vehicle license data available. License plate denial is a very powerful mechanism for ensuring that Ontarians pay up, but of course it doesn’t extend beyond Ontario’s borders.

We heard numerous complaints on the program and it is hard to assess their validity. The most common complaint linked the three issues mentioned at the outset, claiming that the operator was deliberately taking its time billing, letting interest accumulate at a very profitable 27 percent per annum, and then using the threat of plate denial to collect.

If these accusations are true, they are a legitimate public policy concern. The question for a policymaker is what to do about them. Ontario Transport Minister Jim Bradley, citing the province’s failure to challenge the original privatization agreement in court, said that there was essentially nothing that could be done. The other panelists, myself included, weren’t so sure. Two possible approaches are suasion and legislation. Suasion would involve the government (perhaps the Ministry of Consumer Services rather than Ministry of Transport) gathering information about these complaints and presenting them to 407 ETR’s ombudsman and then the operator.

The operator is a Spanish-Australian consortium that has preferred to maintain a low public profile and collect the revenues rather than present itself as a high-profile good corporate citizen. This would suggest the government would get nowhere with suasion and the implicit threat of “naming and shaming,” but would have to legislate.
The legislative approach would not involve challenging the lease agreement, which the courts have already defended, but rather drafting consumer protection legislation applicable to all current and future Ontario toll roads, or perhaps even more broadly. This would require legal advice as to whether the courts would likely rule that such legislation contravenes the operator’s lease agreement.

Lurking down the road is an issue mentioned by Minister Bradley in the discussion, namely the development of Highway 407 East, a toll road running from the eastern end of 407 ETR in Pickering to Highway 35/115. The minister promised that the government would not repeat the mistakes of the past and 407 East would be built and run entirely by the government. A moment’s consideration suggests that likely will not come to pass. If it did, people would have to carry two transponders, one for 407 ETR and the other for 407 East, and would receive two bills for a single trip using both parts of the highway.

While the minister claims that this will lead to competitive benchmarking because drivers will compare the two operations, it is more likely that drivers will tell the two operators to get their acts together. In addition, obvious economies of scale will give both an incentive to make their technologies at least interoperable, and more likely completely integrated. Finally, by virtue of having developed and operated 407 ETR for over a decade, 407 ETR Concession Company Ltd. will have an enormous advantage over any other potential bidders for contracts on the development of 407 East. When the government moves to the contracting stage for Highway 407 East, it and 407 ETR Concession Company Ltd. will have to begin talking in earnest.

So if I were the Ontario Government, what would I do now? I’d gather information about billing practices and, if there are some that appear questionable, I would meet with the ombudsman and the operator. I would also get counsel to look at the question of whether consumer protection legislation would escape being over-ridden by the lease agreement. And I’d recognize that Minister Bradley’s “two operators, one highway” line will ultimately be untenable, and the two operators will have to talk about interoperability and integration.